[iDC] on digital labor

pat kane playethical at gmail.com
Tue Nov 3 10:28:33 UTC 2009

Beautifully argued, as ever, from Andrew, and I can't respond to  
everything, but a few caveats:
> These violations of work standards occur in the sector of old media  
> that is most clearly aligned with the neo-liberal ethos of the  
> jackpot economy. It’s an ethos which demands that we are all  
> participants in a game that rewards only a few, while the condition  
> of entry into this high-stakes lottery is to leave your safety gear  
> at the door; only the most spunky, agile, and dauntless will  
> prevail, but often at high psychic cost–witness Susan Boyle’s  
> recent return to the spotlight after a long bout of medication and  
> institutionalization.

I'm scratching my head here at what you're defending: the unionized  
rights of tv workers to produce decades of passivity-inducing  
pabulum, and worse than that (as Brian Holmes has dubbed it), a cyber- 
marketing "Neilsenism" which locks the viewers into a sad loop of  
uneasy identification, leading to restless consumerism? Didn't Paddy  
Chayefsky nail all this in Network in the mid-seventies?

And from a play studies perspective, one has to immediately  
relativise and historicise your linking of this particular 'game' of  
culture to neo-liberalism. As Sutton-Smith reminds us in Ambiguity of  
Play, agonism - play-as-contestation - is an enduring modality of  
play, functionally deep in our evolved condition, alongside others to  
be sure. I doubt whether Simon Cowell's various spectacles are  
qualitatively different from other symbolic expenditures of power in  
other, certainly pre-modern eras. The point about social media, in or  
out of the clutches of parasitic corporates, is whether we can use it  
to tap into more expansive, enriching, sustaining games, simulations  
and rituals.

To my eyes, though these shows successfully commodify the  
'interpassive' dimensions of the network society - phone/text votes,  
branded forums, cheap shows (the X-tra Factor) on multiple channels -  
they are also vigorously subverted by a fourth estate (amplified by  
social media) which is still doing its job. Witness the recent  
convulsions of both ITV and BBC in the UK about game-show rigging.

> Yet the labor infractions I have been describing are only visible  
> because they take place against the heavily unionized backdrop of  
> the entertainment industries. In the world of new media, where  
> unions have no foothold whatsoever, the formula of overwork,  
> underpayment, and sacrificial labor is entirely normative. The  
> blurring of the lines between work and leisure, the widespread use  
> of amateur or user input on the social web or in open source, and  
> the systematic expropriation of Tiziana Terranova first described  
> as “free labor” has prompted some commentators to ask whether the  
> experience of digital environments should direct us to rethink  
> entirely our basic understanding of labor and enterprise. [2] While  
> skeptical, I am certainly open to such inquiries and look forward  
> to any such discussion.

Do you have no perspective on the Italian autonomists' (and in recent  
times, Andre Gorz's) response to the spectre of free labor - the  
horizon of a 'guaranteed income' or 'social wage', which would  
recognise that we are cognitively and affectively producing in our  
generality? I don't know that this is necessarily such a utopian  
horizon, or so disconnected from policy processes. One of the  
arguments about the nature of creative work I'm hearing in the UK and  
Europe is that it may well demand a new conception of welfare/well- 
being support - what has been called (and I think precipitately  
rejected) by Rossiter and Lovink as 'flexicurity'. (for a rather  
watery version of how this might work in terms of state allowance see  
http://www.newdealofthemind.com/?page_id=1329). This is the commons- 
ization of cultural production as a consequence of open digital  
networks (and remember how it could have been different? Ted Nelson  
and his hypertext micropayment system?).

Never mind recompense for unionised tv workers - the whole field is  
de-monetizing (or at least re-monetising, but at a much lower level).  
And there's a bigger ecological horizon about the extent to which we  
need to move away from (heavily) material consumption - wherein the  
rush to (relatively) immaterial prosumption, production or  
interaction, as our psychic compensation for being Northern, late- 
modern 'flexible personalities', might be one kind of answer. I don't  
know that agonising over the labour conditions in making trash tv is  
the right zone in which to deploy one's critical energies.

> Subsequent ethnographic studies of knowledge and creative industry  
> workplaces show that job gratification still comes at a heavy  
> sacrificial cost–longer hours in pursuit of the satisfying finish,  
> price discounts in return for aesthetic recognition, self- 
> exploitation in response to the gift of autonomy, and  
> dispensability in exchange for flexibility.

And for most creative workers, the alternative is...? A career in  
advertising, where a satisfying finish, aesthetic recognition,  
autonomy, and flexibility in the job are indeed handsomely rewarded -  
but towards the end of numbed and dumbed mentalities? You seem to  
have an angst for a pre-digital, almost Mad Men style world of  
cultural employment, where symbolic analysts did at best mediocre, at  
worse mendacious work, yet at least managed a serene martini in  
comfortable surroundings at the end of an 8-hour day. Are sectoral  
employment deals on residuals and recompense going to be enough, when  
(as you say further on) the dream of semiotically-active, mass- 
innovative citizenry has now come true, in all its copyright-busting  
fecundity? And further: Will all art and culture become folk-art and  
culture in a steady-state economy - and is the mass embrace of  
interactive tools an anticipation of this shift?

>  for the business entrepreneur, the outcome is a virtually wage- 
> free proposition. There are costs involved for bandwidth, hosting,  
> and maintaining commercial platforms, but as far as the monetizable  
> product goes, it is the users, or prosumers, as industry  
> strategists call them, who create all the surplus va
> lue (which could be described as the difference between the value  
> such free services offer to users and the value they create for  
> business).

I'm one of those entrepreneurs, using (though not owning) one of  
those platforms, encouraging that kind of fan labor (http:// 
hueandcry.ning.com). I can tell you our anxiety is that we have built  
a fan community upon a platform whose advertising-convertible  
interactions won't be substantial enough to maintain the  
functionality of its social tools (whether through its own  
bankruptcy, or a takeover leading to reduction of service). At the  
very least, Ning's ability to allow you to export your data-base as a  
file, and measure some degree of customer behaviour through Google  
Analytics, means that this small-trader has the possibility to start  
again if his platform fails. But there is no doubt that the free- 
culture expectations induced by net behaviour has shaped Ning till  
now - and its combination of power and low cost has given us (and  
I'll bet many others) the possibility to conduct our cultural  
commercial enterprise *without* a sell-out of our art to corporate  
interest, and with a direct relationship with people who want to give  
us money - for our performances, at least (if not to the same degree  
our music).

I would say a net-preneur has to have, at best, a tragic perspective  
on the permanence of the institutions and networks which sustain  
their enterprise. What I'd like to know is: if there are dimensions  
of the private banking system that are too big to fail, which of our  
commercial social networks might also fall under the same category?  
Or alternatively: what is the public infrastructural stake in robust  
open networks? Or: was Minitel really *that* silly?

> Technolibertarians who have consistently viewed cyberspace as a  
> haven of free being are notoriously oblivious to the impact of the  
> cut-price labor economy that is its default mode. The flourishing  
> of self-publication and amateur content has been a clear threat to  
> the livelihoods of professional creatives whose prices are driven  
> down by, or who simply cannot compete with, the commercial mining  
> of the online, discount alternatives to their services. Print  
> journalism is only the most recent, well-publicized example of a  
> profession trampled underfoot as advertisers and owners switch to  
> online assets. Indeed, it’s ironic to see how media critics who are  
> more accustomed to proclaiming that the “press is free only for  
> those who own one” have lately been defending these bastions of  
> information gatekeeping as stable sources of valued livelihoods.

As I said in previous post, I think there's a good ferment of  
thinking about how journalism as an ethical, professional practice is  
sustained in the digital meltdown of company and organisational  
models. Could be legislation to support new, with- or non-profit  
company structures; could be some new maleficent integration of  
device, software and e-commerce (wait to see the deals that the  
iTablet has cut with publishing houses). But in any case, and to  
repeat myself, it could be that journalism becomes (has already  
become?) one of the many operations of the 'General Intellect' in  
necessarily steady-state economies, in a sousveillant mode. Rossiter  
and Bauwens' separate calls for 'organised networks' might well be a  
template for what succeeds the big-city, ad-driven newsroom. But no  
Martinis in the wood-panelled bar at the end of the day, I would hazard.

We (the self-consciously creative/cognitive classes) will be poorer  
in the post-capitalist economy: however, we may well be more alive.  
What did Vanegeim say? "We refuse a world where the guarantee that we  
will not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom...We  
can escape the commonplace only by manipulating it, controlling it,  
thrusting it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of  
our subjectivity".

best, pat kane

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